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Omicron coronavirus variant: Maria Van Kerkhove on what we know so far

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Exclusive: The World Health Organization’s technical lead on covid-19 says we will know how effective our vaccines are against omicron by Christmas



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8 December 2021

Maria Van Kerkhove is the World Health Organization’s technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic

RICHARD JUILLIART/AFP via Getty Images

Since it was first detected by scientists in South Africa, the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has spread across the world at an alarming speed, prompting many countries to introduce new restrictions and forcing people to reconsider plans for large gatherings. As it is so new, many details about how it compares to other variants aren’t yet clear. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on covid-19, spoke to New Scientist about what we know so far, how she is approaching the festive season and how 2022 might pan out.

What can you tell us about the transmissibility of omicron?

We’ll have an answer on how transmissible it is in days rather than weeks. We don’t have an answer yet on whether it outcompetes delta [variant]. We are seeing increased growth of the variant in many countries where delta has diminished, but we need to see how it co-circulates with delta in other areas.

What do we know about the severity of disease caused by omicron?

We are getting a clearer picture here. Many patients have presented with mild disease and if you compare it to other waves, omicron seems to be more mild. We will get more data on that soon. But it doesn’t mean it’s only mild – we have seen the full spectrum of severity with the variant, and people will die from it. Saying “it’s only mild” is very dangerous. If it is more transmissible than delta, there will be more cases, more hospitalisations and more deaths.

How effective are our vaccines against omicron?

There are lots of studies on mutations in other variants that are also present in omicron, and some show reduced vaccine efficacy in terms of prevention against severe disease and death, but it doesn’t mean vaccines won’t work. Our current vaccines are incredibly potent against severe disease and death. We will get some answers on the variant’s impact on vaccines before Christmas. One thing we need from South Africa in particular is data on severity by vaccination status, so we can get a better understanding of what happens if you are infected by omicron while vaccinated.

You have the most knowledge of anyone in the world right now about covid-19. What is your prediction for what might happen in 2022, or does omicron show it’s completely unpredictable?

Omicron was entirely predictable. Not the specific mutations, but the idea that we’d have a variant that would emerge that would potentially be more transmissible, a variant that had properties of immune escape [reduced protection from vaccines and prior infection]. In 2022, I expect to see a significant reduction in hospitalisations and deaths in those who are vaccinated. At the same time, the virus will evolve because we’re not doing enough to prevent its transmission. I don’t mean lockdowns, but social distancing, mask wearing, working from home and improving ventilation – all the thing we’ve figured out that help. What countries do in the next week to 10 weeks completely influences what happens with omicron. 2022 will unfold how we allow it to.

If someone is planning to meet up with family over the holidays, what advice would you give? Are you having a holiday party?

We are asking people to be really careful and what they should do depends on where that family is meeting, whether they are vaccinated, if they use testing, if they are minimising contacts, if they are doing things outdoors rather than indoors. You need to make sure there is good ventilation where you are meeting. Personally, I would give anything to spend the holidays with my family. We are having tough discussions right now, just as many families are. People should say: “OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s work out how can we do this as safely as possible.” We have choices and our choices have consequences: don’t give the virus the opportunity to thrive.

Finally, what are you going to do about naming future variants once you run out of Greek letters?

We are considering naming them after star constellations, but we have received some pushback. If we do go ahead with that plan, we’ll choose constellations that are less well known so that there’s no stigma on the beautiful stars we see in the sky.

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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